On June 11, 2017, the Blue Beginners jazz band from Mito Technical High School, Japan performed an afternoon concert as part of the 2017 Glenn Miller Festival in Clarinda, Iowa. The group was making its initial appearance at the festival, playing three concerts over as many days. The student musicians’ energy and enthusiasm in playing jazz and being part of the festival made this concert experience extra special.
This was my first time to attend the festival, but every year a group from Japan performs, probably because there is a Japan branch of the Glenn Miller Festival Birthplace Society in Tokyo. The emcee introducing the Blue Beginners band explained that Mito is approximately 90 miles from Tokyo and not too far from the area devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
The group, made up of mostly juniors and seniors, is entirely extracurricular and the directors are also instructors at the school (one in chemistry, the other in engineering). Despite these obstacles, the band plays about 50 concerts and produces a CD every year. The band was made up of 7 saxophone players, 5 on trumpet, 5 on trombone, and a rhythm section with alternating players on piano, drumset, bass and electric guitar. Interestingly, females outnumbered males two-to-one. The musicians wore black pants and cool-looking black vests over white shirts and blue ties, and topped the look with snappy brim fedoras.
Most if not all of the musicians had solos at various times, and they confidently came up to center stage to play the solo and then removed their fedoras and bowed when the solo ended.
The ensemble played classic jazz standards including Little Brown Jug, Moonlight Serenade, Pennsylvania 6-5000, and American Patrol. One of the other instructors at the school, dressed in a ceremonial kimono, served as announcer for the group and explained a bit of their history before she introduced String of Pearls.
They also performed selections from other genres such as Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 and Chick Corea’s fusion inspired Spain. The musicians really seemed to enjoy playing these numbers.
One of the trumpeters plays a flugelhorn at the beginning of Spain.
The band also played a snazzy version of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes, and concluded their program with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Sing, Sing, Sing in which many of the musicians came down into the audience before returning to the stage for the grand finale. As part of this piece the electric guitarist demonstrated his versatility by playing a solo with the guitar behind his head.
This was a wonderful concert in many ways. It was obvious from their mastery of the music that the students had devoted many hours to practicing and memorizing their parts. It was also apparent, from the tears shed by the adult directors/instructors as well as the students as the end of the concert grew near, that they had enjoyed participating in the festival and staying with host families in the community. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience to also feel a surge of emotion as this group played its final piece—the emotion of feeling a real connection, despite the language barrier, with fellow humans, which is one of the very best attributes of the musical experience in my opinion.
The drummer expressed his feelings by shouting out at one point, “I love the US!” as he donned sunglasses, to which I add, “I love the Blue Beginners band!” I hope this band is able to return to the Festival for many years to come!